The Anniversary

Pluto Turns 10


He really was the future.

When Nayvadius Wilburn released his official debut album 10 years ago this Sunday, he was already a standout on the mixtape circuit and an unusual hit-maker on the radio — a charismatic dreadlocked giant in omnipresent shades, his voice hoarse and wheezing under an avalanche of Auto-Tune. He’d later carry singles as different as Ace Hood’s paranoid sledgehammer “Bugatti” and Rihanna’s squelching, croaking, deeply tuneful “Loveeeeeee Song,” crystallize his antihero persona on 2015’s archetypal DS2, join forces with Drake for the biggest joint rap release since Watch The Throne, and seamlessly hybridize trap and R&B on 2017’s HNDRXX, all before finally reaching the top of the Hot 100 in the long tail of his career. But Pluto, an album that managed to be both on-trend and idiosyncratic to the extreme, is where Future’s status as a transformative figure started to come into focus.

As the cousin of Organized Noize producer Rico Wade, Future had a blood connection to the Dungeon Family — the pioneering collective that launched Southern freaks OutKast and Goodie Mob to landscape-altering celebrity and helped establish Atlanta as the rap capitol of the world — and he telegraphed that bond by having Big Rube deliver one of his trademark monologues to open Pluto. “No longer can I remain earthbound,” Rube declared, playing off Future’s obsessive astronaut motif. “The future is now.” From there, you could sense the Dungeon Family’s influence more in Future’s unflinching weirdness than in any specific resemblance to their music. The more obvious reference points for this stuff were all more current radio fare, something Future-friendly critics mentioned at the time while taking pains to point out the ways he tweaked the existing templates.

“His music pulls heavily from Lil Wayne’s syrup-soaked ballads, T-Pain’s robotic rapping turned singing, and Akon’s illusions of stadium grandeur, but Pluto is far more familiar than it is formulaic,” Jordan Sargent wrote at Pitchfork. In Spin, Andrew Nosnitsky noted, “For years now, broadly hooky, shamelessly triumphant post-kiddie sing-a-long swag rappers like Roscoe Dash and Travis Porter have dominated the format; Pluto builds on that formula, but bends it to a more mature end.” Not everyone’s comparisons were so kind: At The A.V. Club, Evan Rytlewski called Future’s vocal style “an Auto-Tune-curdled croon so flat it makes 808s & Heartbreak feel like a Jeff Buckley record,” while HipHopDX‘s Edwin Ortiz dismissed him as a novelty act trading in “elementary rhymes and stale metaphors.”

The lyrics were, admittedly, not always this album’s strong suit, especially as Future worked to shoehorn in every possible reference to spaceships, the moon, and whatnot. Although he could deploy that voice more nimbly than you’d think, his appeal was rooted less in his rapping than the way he used his voice as a conduit for emotional rupture. He’s often been compared to a bluesman, a description that fit more and more later on as he settled into a signature numb despair. Before that transition and the notorious heel turn that precipitated it, Future’s first album often presented him as a hopeless romantic bellowing powerful melodies — Auto-Tune slathered like epoxy over the crags in his voice, amplifying rather than correcting its imperfections. Even then, though, he was toying with embracing his more toxic impulses; the album’s most prophetic lyric may be “You want me to be a bad guy/ OK, it’s on then.”

Pluto was paradoxical: an unmistakable street-rap album that often leaned hard into pop, disjointed in sound but united by its heaving, wailing center of gravity. It definitely didn’t hang together as smoothly as some of his later aesthetic exercises, which may not be a bad thing depending on how you feel about the streaming-friendly zone-out behemoths that later became his specialty. Here, Future was showing off how many ways he could excel within the existing boundaries of mainstream hip-hop — and how successfully he could push them. That voice sounded good messily splattered inside several different kinds of containers, be it the joyous Top 40 bait “Straight Up,” the bluesy crawl “Truth Gonna Hurt You,” or the ominously booming Snoop Dogg collab “Homicide.”

The album’s singles demonstrated just how versatile he could be. On repurposed mixtape tracks like “Tony Montana” and “Magic,” here imprinted with superstar features from Drake and T.I., he contorted his voice into bizarre shapes and textures where others would have played it straight, turning a bad Al Pacino impression and nasal android talk into hypnotic mantras. At first the sound of Future repeating “Tony Montana, Tony Montana” and “Voila, magic! Voila, magic!” drove me nuts; then those refrains burrowed into my brain and I began to admire what a bizarre spin he was putting on trap music. “Same Damn Time,” on the other hand, was love at first sound. Future’s brilliantly simple shout-along hook was a perfect match for such thunderous production — a young titan basking in the glory of his own multi-tasking prowess atop Sonny Digital’s gothic synths and squealing keys.

Yet it was the ballads that ultimately turned this flawed, inspired collection into a paradigm-shifting classic. On “Turn On The Lights,” over Mike Will Made-It synth ripples that sound like angelic harps, he roamed the club with a flashlight desperately searching for a woman whose memory he can’t shake: “I want your energy to take control of me/ I tried to go to sleep and seen her in my dreams.” The similarly sentimental if slightly less effective “Neva End,” later repackaged with Kelly Rowland on the deluxe Pluto 3D, found him tenderly purring, “It’s like our life has just began/ ‘Cause we became the best of friends.” (Three years later: “I ain’t got no manners for those sluts/ I’ma put my thumb in her butt.” Life comes at you fast.)

Future saved some of his most passionate love for himself. “I done paid so many dues, I never lose my cool,” he sang on “You Deserve It,” the album-closing victory lap that became key to Pluto’s legacy despite never being released as a single. “Just the other day, my lil’ cousin call me from school and said, ‘You deserve it.'” Of all the songs reveling in a rapper’s rise to fame and fortune, few have conveyed hardwired ache and fresh elation so clearly. It’s no wonder Pluto 3D slotted “You Deserve It” up front instead, conveniently bumping the R. Kelly collab “Parachute” somewhere near the back. (Aside from Kelly’s disgraced status, the song’s Eastern-tinged R&B was always a weird starting place for this record.)

So much has happened in Future’s life and career over the past decade. He’s doubled back into villainy and despondency many times over. He’s released anthems as resounding and singular as “Mask Off” and “Fuck Up Some Commas” and “Move That Dope.” He’s perfected an approach copied by countless trap upstarts and then, depending on your perspective, either endlessly refined it or ran it into the ground. He’s cheated on his famous fiancĂ©e after collaborating on one of the best songs of her career, rapped on a Taylor Swift single alongside Ed Sheeran, and scored a #1 hit by interpolating Right Said Fred. It’s been a checkered but ultimately triumphant run. Yet even on a song called “Life Is Good,” you’ll never hear Future sounding as celebratory as he did at the outer reaches of Pluto, about to forever alter his own life and popular music at large.

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